Reading Kenya

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, The Dragonfly Sea: The Dragonfly Sea is the story of Ayaana, who grows up with her mother, Munira, and a father that she adopts – Muhidin – on the island of Pate, off the Kenyan coast. Her life changes when – on the basis of DNA tests – it is found that she is one of the distant descendants of a Chinese naval expedition that was wrecked off the coast of Pate seven hundred years ago. As part of their cultural diplomacy, the Chinese declare her a cultural ambassador – someone who can “walk the space between the past and the present, so that the future could be shared” (p. 154), and finance her education in China. But meanwhile, things are not well on Pate, when Muhidin’s recently-returned son – and now married to Munira – is renditioned as a suspected terrorist, and their fragile family is torn apart. While Ayaana’s time in China – and a brief, perilous sojourn in Turkey – changes her, she too will return to a very changed Pate Island.

Readers familiar with Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s previous novel, Dust, will quickly recognise the familiar qualities of her writing: atmospheric writing (“Each port had a distinctive smell, as if the sea distilled the climate, hopes, and experiences of each place into a unique essence. Kilindini. Top note, earth, fire, moon flowers, and blood; middle note, salt, putrefying seaweed, and rust; bottom note, wood, twilight’s sun warmth, sweat (182 – 3)); a deep sense of place (“Outside, East African botanical exiles – the flame trees of Xiamen had exploded into red flower, and in the late light these looked like giant lanterns (357)); prose that engages all the senses (“Imagine the world as a salt road, and yourselves as slugs crossing it…” (120)); and sentences crafted like jewels (“Cartography not of possession, but of, how odd, belonging…” (478)). At the same time, The Dragonfly Sea paints upon a much larger canvas than the contained, Kenyan narrative-scape of Dust: from Pate Island to Mozambique to China to Turkey and back again – and all though, with the sea being its own character – The Dragonfly Sea communicates a sense of immensity, radiating outwards from the sometime-city-now-almost-ghost-town of Pate: “My town lives inside the ghost of a city that was the centre of the world.” (242)

At the centre of the story is Ayaana, a protagonist to whom you lose your heart to immediately; in many ways, as she navigated the world, Ayaana reminded me of Kirabo in Jennifer Makumbi’s The First Woman and Wurche in Ayesha Haruna Attah’s The Hundred Wells of Salaga. Owuor gives us an equally memorable supporting cast around her, from Munira and Muhidin to the emotionally lacerated Chinese ship-captain Lai Jin, and of course, the sea itself: most of Ayaana’s character itself is revealed not through interiority, but through engagement with these characters as they enter, cross, recross, and – sometimes – exit the stage of her life; by the end, it is more than sufficient to bear the narrative burden that Owuor places upon it, and the ending is a triumph.

Peter Kimani, Dance of the Jakaranda: Peter Kiman’s Dance of the Jakaranda is a generational story, along the lines of Jennifer Makumbi’s Kintu or Namwalli Serpell’s The Old Drift. It moves between 1902 and 1962 Kenya: at the time when the great railway line that formed the heart of the British colony was being constructed (with the help of Indian labour), and the years leading up to Kenyan independence. At the centre of the story is Jakaranda Hotel at Nakuru, built by Ian McDonald (“the Master”), former Commissioner of the Protectorate, for a wife who would never live there; at the time of Independence, we find Rajan Salim – a musician, and – as it turns out – the grandson of Babu, one of the initial Indian emigrants brought to build the railway, and McDonald’s bete noire – playing to packed crowds at the Jakaranda Hotel; soon, however, the chaos around Independence will engulf Nakuru and Rajan as well, and lead to the opening up of a particularly dark past involving McDonald, Babu, and the assassinated preacher Turnbull.

Dance of the Jakaranda moved adroitly between timelines, carefully revealing how events of the past ripple into the future (in that sense, apart from the books I mentioned above, it reminded me even more of Hamid Ismailov’s The Devil’s Dance, which moved between Stalin’s purge of the Uzbek intellectuals in the 1930s, and social and cultural upheaval in the Central Asian Khanates a century before. The two stories are similar in how they skilfully depict the faint – yet unmistakable – ways in which events set in motion echo in unexpected ways through the generations. Dance of the Jakaranda is also, of course, a novel about colonialism: that is inevitable given the times that it is set in. On this Kimani is, as one would expect, unsparing: one of the things I learned from it was how the British intentionally introduced infectious diseases to wipe out the animal stock of of the Masai herdsmen, and reduce them to wage labour, so that they could be conscripted into work on the railway line.

But perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of this book is its choice of protagonists: Babu and Rajan are Indians in Kenya (an immigrant, and then a third-generation Kenyan-Indian). Writing involving Indians in Kenya – given our intertwined histories – is, of course, not new (think of Joginder Paul’s Land Lust), but this is perhaps the first novel I’ve read by a Kenyan where the story of colonialism and independence is seen through Indian eyes. And this is wonderfully done: Kimani writes with great empathy, sensitivity, and humaneness about what has often been a fraught history. Indeed, one of the most moving passages in the book captures that history in a single, beautiful image:

But what has truly put Nakuru on the world map is the wilflife sanctuary around the Jakaranda, and the annual festival held every December to coincide with the migration of the flamingos, the alien birds that inhabit the lake that gave the township its name. The birds’ first recorded exodus out of town coincided with the expulsion of the Indians, which many believe was the birds’ expression of solidarity with the community. (347)

Mukoma wa Ngugi, Unbury Our Dead With Song: Mukoma wa Ngugi’s Unbury Our Dead With Song is a love letter to music, to all that it can do – and all that we long for it to do. At the heart of the story is the Ethiopian musical form, the tizita. Told from the eyes of the Kenyan tabloid journalist, John Thandi Manfredi, the story opens at an underground Nairobi bar where a competition is held to determine the best tizita singer of the world. Haunted by what he hears at the bar, John persuades his editor to let him travel to Ethiopia to interview these practitioners of the tizita, and get to the root of what makes this music what it is.

While reading Unbury Our Dead With Song, I was reminded repeatedly of an image from Virgil’s Aeneid: that of a shoreline that recedes every time you sail towards it. This story takes us to the limits of words and of language; then, at the place where words end, to sounds and to music – and then to the ending point of music itself, with something still left over, a gap that still remains. As John describes a tizita performance: “… a place where the music is as true as speech, as true as a conversation with all its starts and hiccups and silences as one searches for meaning, or the right words” (155). Tizita, too, is a searching-without-finding, a suggestion of something but without grasping it. Indeed, on more than one occasion, John – and his interlocutors – can only make sense of it through the language of loss:

“I have many answers, but here is one,” she said as I laughed. “Tizita is of a love lost a long time ago – before you are born. Let me put it this way, “Malaika” is the song the original Tizita singer sang when the wounds of losing love, country, parent, sibling – of losing life while still alive – were still fresh. All those losses over years become something you pass on from generation to generation – the moss of all those broken hearts and loss gathered in song. “Malaika” is the fresh wound; the Tizita is the scar. “Malaika” has a face; the Tizita is faceless, or rather, it has so many faces that it is faceless. (95)

Or:

“I told you before. Containment. The Tizita – it is private, a private love or sorrow that joins the public ocean of tears. We mourn and celebrate together and privately at the same time. A good Tizita walks that line – if you show off, you undo that balance. The people feel what they have lost, no need to slap them in the face with it. Besides, what can you tell an erupting volcano of the hotness of the lava?” (p. 133)

Or:

“Think about the first death – the Tizita, to me, for me, is that sound of the first death, the recognition and the surprise and the realization; that first consciousness that realized it was going to be no more – and it wanted to leave a message in a bottle that becomes me and you … all I can say is, you can walk for a very long time and get to where you are going, but all along, little bits of yourself are left along the way, and you get to where you are going, and there is no going back without stepping on yourself, and there is no going forward without eventually tearing your entrails out of your body.” (p. 184)

One of the important ideas that contribute to this characterisation of titiza is that of containment. “The explosion is in the containment” (96), John is told. There is a holding back, a bordering, a going-there-but-not-quite; and this is because the gap between expression and feeling will remain no matter what, even when you substitute language with music. Thus, beauty lies not in futile attempts to express feeling, but in knowing when to stop and how far to go. In that sense, much of the story of Unbury Our Dead With Song reminded me of the poetry of Zbigniew Herbert, which exemplifies the idea of containment so well. In fact, there is one line from Herbert’s poem, Damastes Nicknamed Procrustes Speaks, which – I think – tells us what Unbury Our Dead With Song is fundamentally about: “he would like to remain faithful/ to uncertain clarity.” The tension within the phrase “uncertain clarity” characterises Ngugi’s novel, and it is in that tension that we find its most beautiful lines and moments.

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Filed under African Writing, Kenya

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